Meet Connect 211, The Modern Search Engine for Community Resources
Need a modern search engine for community resources?
Skyler and Ben have been pouring their heart and soul into Connect 211, Site Savvy’s sister company, so it’s about time we tell everyone what the heck it is!
We’ll be going over:
- How Did We Start Connect 211?
- Building Connect 211 – Community Owned
- Expanding Connect 211
- How Does Connect 211 Work?
- Who’s Behind Connect 211?
Follow along, take the video tour, and see if Connect 211 might benefit you. 😉
How Did We Start Connect 211?
Site Savvy started working with Washington 211, a statewide nonprofit, back in 2018. At the time, Washington 211 had an online interface that allowed a person to search for help and get connected to public resources. It was a very cool public service.
After working on their website for a year or two, Washington 211 lost their online search engine software. The people running that piece of software increased their price by tenfold. It was a big deal.
Long story short, we tried to help Washington 211 find other alternative search engines for quite a while. But all of the alternatives had fatal shortcomings.
In the end, Tim Sullivan, Director of Washington 211 asked us, “Can you guys make a search engine?”
We thought about it. We had networked with developers that did this kind of work. Sky is a developer by trade.
“We could,” Sky said. “It’s gonna be a big project.”
When we discussed the scope of the project and how big it was going to be, Washington 211 was still on board.
Building Connect 211 – Community Owned
When we were outlining the project, Washington 211 asked that we make the software community owned:
“We’d like you to make this open source software, so there isn’t a lock-in. We want it to be community owned. But we also would like you to make a service that’s profitable and maintained. That way, a group of developers can just focus on maintaining the code base.”
One of the problems that arises with open source data is that it has to constantly be maintained. If no one maintains it, the information quickly becomes outdated. That was actually the problem with some of the other open source solutions we tried. They just weren’t maintained anymore. Somebody has to keep their eye on things.
We started down the path in earnest in 2019 and by 2020. We were knee-deep in the project. There were several iterations of Connect 211. We learned so many lessons along the way. By 2021, we were ready to go live with our third and final version of the search engine.
And it worked!
Expanding Connect 211
Once we helped Washington 211, we said ‘Okay, it’s time to build out the service part of this whole plan and offer it to other organizations.’
By this time, we had our second client – Nebraska 211 – another statewide nonprofit in December 2021. Shortly after that, we negotiated with Hawaii in 2022.
And then this year, 2022, has been a roller coaster.
By August 2022, we broke this product out of Site Savvy and into a separate company called Connect 211. You could say the company is six months old at this point, but for us it’s really been about 12 months. We started onboarding new clients and flexing our muscles in terms of scaling this as a service in early 2022.
It’s been a very strenuous growth curve, but we’re ending the year with 11 accounts. This includes six states: Washington State, Hawaii, Nebraska, Maryland, Wyoming, and New York, in addition to some other nonprofits and partners.
It’s been incredible!
Just this past week, we were funded to hire another employee, which we need right now. We’re growing. Connect 211 got some legs, and we’re on pretty good footing for 2023.
How Does Connect 211 Work?
Connect 211 is getting tens of thousands of hits right here in the state of Washington. People can access it from their computers or mobile phone. When someone goes to 211, they’ll receive suggestions for some of the most common needs like:
- “I need a place to stay tonight”
- “I need help finding housing”
- “I need help affording my apartment or home”
- That’s a major one. Probably the biggest one right now.
You can put in your address and the search engine will find the resources in your area. Sometimes these are local resources, sometimes the resources are more broad and the locality doesn’t matter as much – like federal programs.
Then, the search engine will help you find and contact those organizations. It offers options to call, check their websites, get directions, or even how to use public transit and Google Maps.
Washington 211 specifically has some really high quality data with additional filters. We could drill right into, “I’m a homeless person needing rent assistance for housing programs.” And it’ll direct you to a specific program office down in Toppenish.
“It looks really simple, but getting this data to work effectively is very, very tricky,” Sky said. “The level of information Google has doesn’t even begin to give you the information you need to funnel people to the correct resource. There’s nothing worse when you need a phone number and that phone number can’t help you. That’s actually a typical story for these kinds of programs.”
Who’s Behind Connect 211?
Connect 211 is a very stakeholder centric business.
“There are two levels to Connect 211,” Sky explained. “There’s me, Ben, and Chris who are the members of the company. Chris and I do most of the programming. Chris is an utterly phenomenal developer; he architected the whole thing from top to bottom. Ben makes sure the numbers keep working, and that payroll is covered. His job was very difficult for the first few months; this is a pretty tight startup.”
“The second layer is our clients,’” Sky continued. “They’re our stakeholders. They give us daily feedback on how to improve what’s not working, what is working, and positive encouragement too. We just wouldn’t exist without that community.” We’re also heavily engaged with other nonprofit software and standards that we use in this business. Supporting them is good for us. That whole adjacent community has poured a lot of good knowledge, experience, and suggestions into our services as well.”
Connect 211 is a broad ecosystem. It’s so much more than just three people running the show. It’s people-centric and relationship focused.
“I think it speaks to the vision of our company from the very beginning,” Ben added. “We’ve always tried to build our company with other people being at the heart of it.
Most people would just think of “making the world a better place” as some kind of cliche corporate slogan. No, we’re literally helping homeless people find someplace to stay for the night.
Connect 211 is critical.